Let’s explore the wondrous world behind Arabica and Robusta Coffee beans. Coffee is second only to oil in terms of dollars traded worldwide. The world’s green (unroasted) coffee trade is valued at $15 billion annually.
Five geographic coffee-growing regions—South America, Central America, Asia, Africa, and the world’s few Coffee producing islands (which include Hawaii and Jamaica)—are situated between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, where the climate is hot and humid.
Within these regions lie the coffee-producing countries that supply the world annually with 91 million sacks, each weighing an average of 132 pounds (60 kilos):
- South and Central America produce 70 percent of the world’s coffee supply.
- Asia and Africa produce 20 percent of the world’s coffee supply.
- Coffee-producing islands (including Hawaii and Jamaica) account for the remaining production.
Arabica and Robusta Coffee beans in history
As the coffee industry developed during the late nineteenth century, importers began to refer to two types of coffee: Brazils and Milds. The Brazilian coffee gained a reputation for lower quality—often, but not always, deserved.
Most other, more carefully processed Arabica coffees were known as Milds because they were not as harsh in the cup as the Brazils.
Although there are more than twenty species within the genus Coffee, only two account for the vast bulk of the coffee drunk worldwide. Coffee Arabica is the original coffee— (“discovered” by the goatherd Kaldi)—and is native to the highlands of Ethiopia.
Coffee Robusta (also known as Canephora) is native to the hotter, wetter lowland forests of West Africa, and it entered the general commercial market only relatively recently, after World War II.
Fact: Of the worldwide coffee market, Arabica beans account for 75 to 80 percent; Robusta beans, for the remaining 20 to 25 percent. Following is a brief review of the world’s two largest coffee-produced and sold (Arabica and Robusta Coffee beans).
Arabica Coffee Beans
Arabica: A specific variety of coffee. One of the two main coffee species, Arabica beans are considered to be the best variety of coffee. It is still the most widely grown.
Arabica beans produce the best Flavors because they are grown mainly at high altitudes in semitropical climates near the equator.
They naturally contain about 1.1 percent Caffeine; Robusta beans have about 2.2 percent caffeine, double that of the Arabica.
Arabica, the “aristocrats” of coffee beans, are grown at the highest altitudes. These are the most prized beans, demanding the highest prices in the world.
They are the only beans used by the finest specialty coffee roasters and are responsible for brewed coffee’s aroma, body, and smoothness. Arabica is the most widely cultivated coffee bean, constituting 75 percent of the world’s coffee production.
Arabica beans do best at altitudes of 3,000 to 6,500 feet (900 to 2,000 meters), where the slower growing process gives them a richer, more refined body flavor. The higher the altitude where the beans are grown, the finer the quality of the harvest will be.
These beans need soil that is rich in minerals and a constant temperature of about 68°F (20°C). They require very careful cultivation, with just the right climatic conditions, and are susceptible to disease, frost, and drought.
Arabica shrubs yield 1 to 11/2 pounds (500 to 700 g) of green coffee per shrub each year. Arabica coffee beans contain about 1 percent caffeine by weight.
The moment of flowering, followed by the first growth of the tiny berry, is crucial for coffee growers. A heavy wind or hail can destroy an entire crop.
Arabica coffee grows best between 3,000 and 6,000 feet in areas with a mean annual temperature around 70°F, never straying below freezing, never going much above 80°F. The high-grown coffee bean, developing slowly, is generally more dense and flavorful than lower growths.
Robusta (bust) or Canephora
ROBUSTA: One of the two main coffee species, Robusta is responsible for the strength and intensity of the coffee. It lacks the aroma and smoothness of its competitor, the Arabica coffee bean.
It grows well at low altitudes and has twice the amount of Caffeine, about 2.2 percent, of the Arabica bean, which has about 1.1 percent.
By 1920, 80 percent of Java’s coffee crop consisted of Robusta beans, the high Caffeine, disease-resistant alternative that had been discovered in the Belgian Congo in 1898, just as the leaf rust hemileia vastatrix was decimating the East Indies’ Arabica crop.
Unlike its more delicately flavored Arabica cousin, Robusta —so named for its hardy growth—thrived anywhere from sea level to 3,000 feet and produced its small berries in far greater abundance.
It also began bearing in its second year, earlier than Arabica. Its only disadvantage lay in the cup: even the best Robusta brew tasted harsh, flat, and bitter. It had to be used in a blend with Arabica, to the detriment of the latter.
The Dutch, who supervised Robusta’s growth amid the rubber trees of Java and Sumatra, nonetheless developed a taste for it, particularly during World War I, when its consumption in the Netherlands surpassed that of Brazilian Arabica.
This coffee bean species is used for the lower grades of coffee sold throughout the world. This species does best at lower altitudes and elevations, even on plains, where the climate is unsuitable for the Arabica species. It will do well even in poor growing conditions.
Coffee Robusta is very hardy and disease resistant. Robusta commands the lowest prices in the world, and its unremarkable flavor and scent are undetectable when the beans are in lower-priced commercial coffee blends and soluble instant coffees.
However, Robusta is responsible for the strength and intensity of a finished cup of coffee. Robusta shrubs have a higher yield than do Arabica, 2 to 3 pounds (1 to 1.5 kilos) of green coffee per shrub each year.
Robusta coffee beans contain about 2 percent caffeine by weight. In contrast to Arabica, robustas weren’t cultivated until after 1850.
Commercial production began on the West African coast between Gabon and Angola as European colonial powers (principally France and Portugal) sought to promote Robusta cultivation and use in their home markets.
This species grows from sea level up to 3,200 feet and tolerates warmer temperatures and higher humidity than Arabica but is more sensitive to cold.
Robustas tend to yield smaller beans than do Arabica, with an inferior flavor (but more caffeine) and a distinct bitterness. They are, however, easier to grow, as they demonstrate a wider tolerance to most diseases, soil conditions, and hotter climates.
Following World War II, Robusta production grew and its consumption expanded. With a harsher flavor and greater ease in cultivation, this variety commands a lower price in the market than Arabica and is commonly used in both instant coffee and the mass-produced ground coffees seen in large grocery chains. Today most Robusta is grown outside of Africa, where the only remaining top producer is Côte d’Ivoire.
The differences between Arabica and Robusta
Arabica and Robusta species differ in taste, Caffeine content, disease resistance, and optimum cultivation conditions. Natural variations in soil, sun, moisture, slope, disease, and pest conditions dictate which coffee is most effectively cultivated in each region of the world.
Generally speaking, East African, Central, and South American countries grow Arabica, and WestAfrican and Southeast Asian countries grow Robusta, although these divisions are not absolute.
The largest Arabica producer, Brazil, is also the second-largest producer of Robusta after Vietnam. Brazil grows just slightly more Robusta than third place Indonesia, which also produces significant amounts of highly regarded Arabica.
Arabica typically grows at altitudes between 1,500 and 6,000 feet, depending on location. Arabicas tend to be more susceptible than Robustas to poor soils and diseases.
Owing to this, and the fact that they are considered a tastier bean, Arabica command a higher price and are most often used in fine, specialty coffees and as a flavor component in Robusta Blends.
Premium-quality “washed” Arabica (which entail postharvest processing in water) from northern Latin America trade at prices more than double those for lower-quality Robusta or even “unwashed” Arabica. Today about 70 percent of our world coffee supply is Arabica, Colombia, and Brazil being the main producers.
During the first half of the 1950s, as coffee prices had risen, hopeful growers in the tropics planted new trees. Arabica trees produce four years after they are planted.
Robusta trees, however, take only two years from seedling to harvest and produce more heavily. Encouraged by the popularity of instant coffee, many African colonies increased Robusta growth dramatically.